500th Anniversary of the Reformation
1st Special Service
February 12, 2017
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text that I have chosen for this morning’s sermon is from Hebrews 13:7, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”
This morning, I want to take you back in time, back to November 10, 1483. The Middle Ages are drawing to a close. Richard the Third is crowned king of England, after the rightful king, twelve-year-old Edward the Fifth is murdered. The Sistine Chapel at the Vatican opens, and in Eisleben, Germany, a copper miner and his wife have their firstborn son and name him Martin. And though his birth was not a noteworthy event even in the little town of Eisleben, in time this man would open the pages of the Bible and help the Church recapture its central teaching: that we are saved by grace through faith because of Christ.
When Martin Luther was born, the Church was struggling. The Bible was generally not read, and even where it was, it wasn’t really understood. The important doctrines of God’s Law and Gospel were confused so when Christians looked for forgiveness, they were told to focus on their good works. But their good works never seemed sufficient to achieve peace with God, because they’re weren’t, and so the Church encouraged the frightened people with purgatory, saints, and indulgences. All in all, it wasn’t very helpful. Now, this may sound like a boring history lesson, but I assure you it’s not, it’s important history that we need to remember.
It’s good for us to remember. History and memory hold the Church together. The Gospels themselves are a narrative that recall the work of Jesus for us. Without knowledge of Christ’s work, faith can’t exist. So also, without a vivid memory of the past, the ties that hold us together as the people of God are severed. The story of Jesus is told by human beings, flawed ones for sure, but simple human beings nonetheless. And so today we commemorate God’s work through His humble servant Martin Luther. We’re not doing this for Luther’s sake, he’s not the point. We do so to remember how faithful God is in maintaining His Church and keeping the promise that was given to us by Christ Himself: “The gates of hell shall not prevail against [Christ’s Church]”
Martin Luther was a simple person. I sometimes forget this, given that I know what an enormous role he would come to play in world history. But in the beginning, he was just a boy, born into a family of modest means in unremarkable circumstances. As it is with all of us, Luther grew through his life experiences, good and bad. His early years are full of stories of developing character and, at times, extraordinary events. Hopefully, you all know the story of the thunderstorm that drove him to join the monastery. In the midst of terror, he cried out, “Help me, St. Ann, and I will become a monk.”
But momentous, life-changing events such as this, as significant as they are, aren’t what really set Martin Luther apart. What set him apart was his deep love for the Gospel, which he discovered only later in his life. After years of struggling to achieve a righteousness of his own, the Holy Spirit opened the Scriptures to him and showed him that the righteousness of God was not something that Luther earned, but was, in fact, something that Christ had won for him, and for all of us, by grace. This was truly good news, great news, then and now. For the Reformation was, and is still, all about Jesus!
And Jesus is what we all still need. Historians tell us that Luther’s world was steeped in ignorance and superstition. Most people had little or no knowledge of God’s Word, because most of them could not read, and Bibles were expensive and scarce. While today we have easy access to God’s Word, basic human nature hasn’t changed. We’re conceived and born in ignorance and superstition. We deny our sinfulness and our rebellion against God. By intentionally forgetting our sinful past, we show that people today are spiritually really no different than at Luther’s time.
When Martin Luther rediscovered the Gospel, he sought to reform the Church—not overthrow it. He wasn’t seeking to start a new church. He wanted simply to reform the existing Church, to draw it back to the pure Gospel of God’s grace in Christ. He invited church teachers and leaders to discuss these vital questions.
From tiny Wittenberg, off the beaten path in Germany, grew a movement that has not stopped, a confessing movement that seeks always to underscore these truths of God’s Word: We are freed from all sins and guilt solely by the grace of God, which is in our Lord Jesus Christ. We receive forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation simply by believing this good news. As we Lutherans like to say, Sola gratia! Sola fide! Sola Scriptura! Solus Christus! By grace alone! By faith alone! By Scripture alone! Because of Christ alone!
And so Luther pointed only to the One of humble and miraculous birth, Jesus Christ, true God and true man. Luther preached nothing else but Christ, “who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man” (Nicene Creed).
And so today we look only to Christ. Saint Paul teaches us in Romans 3 that no one is justified, declared by God to be forgiven, by works of the law. Don’t look to the world; don’t look at the strength or weakness with which you believe; don’t look to the things you do—including your church attendance; don’t look to the good works you do for your neighbor; don’t even look in your heart. Looking to ourselves only shows us that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, that we earned God’s displeasure, anger, and wrath. We’ll find no comfort there, no forgiveness there, only slavery to sin.
Look to Christ and Him alone. Christ truly is your comfort, hope, and joy. See that He has done all things well for you. He has earned God’s favor. See how He has kept the Law in our place. See how He has earned heaven. See that Jesus alone, by His suffering and death on the cross, appeased God’s anger and turned away His wrath. See that He does all this for you, in your place. By His work alone we are saved. Jesus, the Son of God, has set you free. And if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed!
God did a great work in the Reformation, but it’s a work that’s never done so therefore we must never become complacent. A little more than four years after Martin Luther’s death on February 18, 1546, a group of his followers fixed their signatures to one of the more significant, yet lesser-known, documents in the Lutheran tradition. “The Magdeburg Confession” identified Luther as God’s a prophet, the third Elijah, who had recovered the scriptural confession of the crucified and risen Jesus.
There are good reasons people made the connection between Elijah and Luther. In the Bible, Elijah appeared from nowhere to challenge the religious status quo. Martin Luther did the same. Elijah was outspoken and confronted the religious and political leaders with their departure from God’s will. He bluntly told King Ahab that he had broken the laws of Moses in confiscating his subjects’ inherited property. He challenged the false prophets of Baal. He spoke directly with courage and conviction to those who were persecuting the faithful and proposing all sorts of false religious beliefs and practice.
Martin Luther did the same. At the meeting at the city of Worms in 1521, Luther stood before the Holy Roman emperor himself and refused to deny what he had learned from the Scriptures. “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, I am bound by the Scriptures…I cannot and I will not retract anything. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me.”
Luther also reminded people of the second Elijah, John the Baptist. John’s message was simple and straightforward: repent and believe the Gospel. When Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses on October 31, 1517, the first one read: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said, ‘Repent!’ willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.”
Luther—better yet, God through Martin Luther—began the Reformation by reminding people that the life of the Christian should be one of continual repentance and faith. And both John and Luther pointed only to Christ as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The Lutheran Reformation was about Jesus Christ. It’s still all about Jesus!
For many years, the old German newspaper of the Missouri Synod, called Der Lutheraner, had as its theme “God’s Word and Luther’s doctrine shall endure now and forever.” That’s a mighty bold claim. But, again, it isn’t because Luther said any of this that we’re remembering today. It’s because what Luther taught was based on the pure Word of God. Luther’s role was to recover what had been confused and to uncover what had been hidden away, namely the Gospel of full and free salvation won by Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection. That is why we remember the birth of Martin Luther today. God used this humble man from out-of-the-way Eisleben to shine the light of the Gospel brightly into his day and, thankfully, into ours as well. It’s good that we remember Martin Luther’s birth. It is even better that we remember and believe in the One to whom Luther always pointed: Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Now the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen